May 03, 2006

Keeping Up With The ID Theft Game

Independent / Kitty Merrill Detective Sergeant Stephen Jensen heads Suffolk County's specialized identity theft unit. (click for larger version)
Stephen Jensen shreds everything. Every piece of junk mail, every old document goes through the machine before it hits the garbage. He doesn't carry more than one credit card and wouldn't dream of leaving home with his Social Security card. That's kept in a special portfolio with all his bills and checkbook and stored in a secure place in his house. Only a trusted relative knows how to find it. He doesn't fill out warrantee postcards or magazine subscriptions or anything that includes his birth date. He won't give his personal information to anyone without asking why. He won't mail anything from his own house because he sees that flag on the mailbox as a signal that says "come steal me."

Sound a little paranoid? Jensen comes by his ultra-cautious habits honestly. A detective sergeant with the Suffolk County Police Department, he heads the county's identity theft unit and is well versed in the tricks of the trade used by ID thieves.

Surprisingly, identity theft is still a predominantly low-tech crime. In 68% of cases, thieves gain access to victims' personal information the old fashioned way — by stealing a purse or wallet, grabbing documents during the commission of a burglary, stealing mail or going through the garbage.

Despite the hype, computer-assisted ID theft is "not as prevalent as people think," Jensen said. Still, he allowed, "the criminals are always technologically a little ahead of the curve as far as computers." The latest scam is known as "phreaking." Thieves will copy the logo from a company, say a lending institution, and send a prospective victim a notice supposedly pertaining to their account. The scammer asks for personal information like Social Security or account numbers, and the victim rarely knows he's been targeted, until the bills for services he never ordered begin to arrive.

"Many people don't understand how it [identity theft] happens to them," Jensen said. But it is for the most part, a "victim assisted" crime. People fail to keep their important information secure and are free about giving it out when asked. In the case of the above-mentioned computer scam, all a potential victim needed to do is call the company to find out that the information request wasn't legit. Such thefts can be avoided by just using simple common sense, "Something Americans sometimes fail to have," Jensen noted.

Take another new scam: A victim receives a phone call from someone identifying himself as an officer of the court and informs the victim that he or she failed to show up for jury duty and that a warrant for arrest was about to be signed. The victim provides the caller with a birth date and Social Security number eagerly in an effort to avoid arrest. Common sense dictates that the courts would never have the manpower to call everybody who misses jury duty, but the thief preys on the victim's worry.

SCPD's ID squad learned of the scam and earlier this year distributed a press release detailing it. Proactive in fighting the crime, Jensen's detectives monitor trends in other parts of the country, then alert local residents. His team stays open to ferreting out new trends and new twists on old cons. "They're happening all the time," Jensen said.

Beyond sending out media alerts, members of the team also host periodic workshops designed to offer strategies for preventing identity theft. Jensen noted that the elderly, coming from a generation that doesn't question authority figures such as the fake court officer, are the most vulnerable. After the workshops, he said, people routinely come up and describe things that happened to them and ask if they might be victims. "They probably are," Jensen said, and don't always report the theft out of embarrassment.

But there are lots who do. Last year, the eight-man unit handled 1800 cases. And for the most part, it's arduous and methodical work, hardly the stuff that makes for action movies. "Our investigations are like watching the grass grow, very slow and very tedious," Jensen informed. Luckily, Jensen was able to staff his team with detectives more interested in credit card chiselers than car chases.

While the detective sergeant praised the unique investigatory skills of his squad, the unit itself is unique. In 2004 the Levy administration saw that ID theft was on the rise and understood the need for a specialized unit devoted full time to investigating that type of case. While most county precincts handled ID theft ably, the specialized unit would be able to see trends that crossed precinct boundaries. For Jensen, the administration was "far ahead of the curve" in creating the unit, which is, he said, "one of the only ones around."

In fact, his personnel attend myriad seminars throughout each year on the topic. Often, team members come back feeling they could have given the training. Summarized Jensen, "We're keeping up with the game and in many cases, we're ahead of it."

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